April 18, 2018

Cornell’s Fifth Centrally Isolated Film Festival Showcases Student Films

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Ithaca is often considered to be in the middle of nowhere, but the work of student filmmakers from across the Northeast were on display at the fifth Centrally Isolated Film Festival at the Schwartz Performing Arts Center last weekend. A wide variety of short films ranging from documentary to animation to live-action narrative by students from more than a half-dozen schools were screened. “In this area, there aren’t a lot of film festivals, especially for student filmmakers, which is the entire idea of the Centrally Isolated Film Festival,” student organizer Isabel Pottinger ’19 said in an interview. “This year we made a very concerted effort to be in contact with a lot of different schools to try to get as much diversity in terms of the people involved in the film festival as possible, and we really reaped the rewards of that.”

The student organizers from the Film Festival Production Lab course, which focuses on running the film festival, including learning how to objectively judge films, pared down a list of over 100 submissions. “We talk about things like: is the sound good, is the cinematography good, does the director accomplish their artistic vision, do we know what their artistic vision is?” Pottinger explained.

The festival was split into two days. Friday’s showcase screening was judged by an audience vote and Saturday’s competition screening was judged by a jury of people respected in the film field. “Friday’s films are films that we, the student organizers, feel that the audience would really love, but Saturday’s films are the films that we admire for their artistic value,” Pottinger clarified. “So both days had films that I really enjoy.”

Friday’s audience award winner was “Zvoov,” by Lee Manor from SUNY Purchase. The film, whose title means “housefly” in Hebrew, follows a tennis player the night before a big match as he runs around his home trying to kill a fly. It’s a remarkably simple premise with almost no dialogue, but it’s executed to perfection using visual storytelling and physical comedy. In one particularly funny moment, the audience is led to believe the fly is dead, the main character grins widely into the camera; then, after a long pause, the fly continues buzzing and the protagonist takes off again in pursuit. “’Zvoov’ is incredible because it has one character for most of the film, which is so hard to do in a short film — so hard to do in any film — to make your audience care about one character without having talked about their background,” Pottinger commented.

The film is also supported by great technical elements. First and foremost, the sound design and special effects are impressive for a student film. The fly’s buzzing sound is sufficiently annoying, allowing the audience to empathize with the character, and the fly itself always looks convincing. The shots are well-lit and well-framed, and Manor finds different angles and close-ups to shoot within the one setting of the house. “Because there’s only one character most of the times, those shots could be really boring, but they’re never boring,” Pottinger said. “For a student film, that thing is crazy.”

The eclectic selection of 15 films shown on Friday was consistently strong. Some films, such as “A Quick Fix,” by William Truslow from Ithaca College, were professional-looking visual treats due to their use of lighting. There were also three animated films on display, my favorite of which was “Blue,” by Maryam Farahzadi from the Rochester Institute of Technology, which at times felt like a Pixar short. It boasted a distinct style, meaningful use of color and a heartwarming story. Another standout entry was “Rinse and Repeat,” by Em Zarabet from Ithaca College, which depicted the intertwining storylines of three people at a laundromat. It was tightly written and well-edited, telling an inventive story in just five minutes.

Saturday’s films were equally fun to watch, in addition to being technically spectacular. “DACAmented,” a moving film following the lives of a diverse group of DACA recipients by St. Clair Detrick-Jules from Brown University, won the prize for best documentary. The film profiles both men and women from all different countries, each with their own story, including one woman who cannot get proper medical care for Down syndrome due to her immigrant status. The film takes a humanistic approach to a political issue with great success.

The winner in the experimental category was “Building Room” by Claire McCluskey from Ithaca College, which combines and sometimes even overlays hand-drawn animation with footage of words being written on and erased from a wall. She uses ambient music and sounds of water to set a melancholy tone that matches the colorless, sketch-like drawings.

The narrative winner was “OB and the Galactic Three in: The Staff of Funk,” by Evan Montgomery from Ithaca College. To call the film original would be an understatement. Just the plot itself — two women discover an uncharted planet and learn to use the power of a mystical force called “the funk” — is imaginative, and that’s not to mention the hyper-stylized camera movements and the use of popular funk music. Despite most of the shots featuring a black or special effects-generated background rather than a traditional film set, the filmmakers create an rich, futuristic visual style through detailed makeup and costuming, high-contrast lighting and every bright, vivid color on the spectrum. Perhaps no film from either day had such a strong artistic vision.

The festival as a whole showcased the filmmakers’ individuality as artists — each movie was unique and memorable — which is a testament to the grueling selection process of the student organizers. “Anything that we can do for films on this campus I think is really important, because we don’t have a big film school, and for me, a filmmaker, doing anything like this inspires me and makes me feel a lot better about being here for film as opposed to any other school,” Pottinger stated.

Lev Akabas is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at la286@cornell.edu.